U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Two U.S. Air Force Academy chemistry instructors received Commendation Medals March 18 for helping save the life of a fellow hiker on Jan.26 in Manitou Springs, Colo. It was just another day for Maj. Thomas Heier and Capt. Benjamin Worker when they climbed the 8,590-foot Manitou Incline in preparation for the "Falcon 50," a 50-mile race at the Academy. They trekked up the trail's 5,000 jagged steps with their wives and were about 10 minutes from the summit when they heard someone yell, "Does anyone have any nitroglycerin?" Knowing that nitroglycerin can be used to a treat heart condition, Heier said his first thought was, "Is someone having a heart attack up there?"
The four rushed to the summit and noticed a group of about 20 hikers gathered around an older man lying on the ground and complaining of severe chest pains. Recalling their self-aid and buddy care training, the two officers worked to stabilize the victim. "We began treating him for shock," Heier said. "We tried to keep him comfortable, keeping him warm, elevating his legs and making sure he stayed calm.
"There were people literally taking off the shirt on their back to keep this guy warm," Heier said. "My wife happened to have a first-aid kit in her backpack and (gave) him an emergency blanket. Bob kept saying, 'I don't want to die.' I told him, 'You're not going to die, everything is going to be okay.'" Emergency responders were notified, but took another 45 minutes to arrive.
"We took turns talking to the victim, Bob, and his girlfriend Denise," Worker said. "Bob fought through a lot and held it together for well over an hour until El Paso search and rescue personnel came to the scene." Soon a caretaker from a nearby camp, Neal Taylor, arrived with an oxygen tank. Heier and Worker helped fit an oxygen mask onto Bob, who began to complain about nausea a few minutes later, Worker said. "We rolled him onto his side and he shortly thereafter went into cardiac arrest," Worker said. "I was at Bob's right shoulder at that moment, so I just kept talking to him while Neal began CPR."
A group took turns delivering chest compressions, Heier said.
"There were probably at least a half dozen of us there who had been trained on CPR, although I don't think any of us had actually used it for a real emergency," Worker said.
"As this was happening, the first search and rescue truck arrived with an automated external defibrillator, a portable machine used to allow the heart to reestablish an effective rhythm," Worker said. "While Tom and others delivered compressions, I helped connect the machine pads and placed them on Bob's chest." Bob did regain consciousness during CPR, but the AED found the heartbeat to be arrhythmic, so the search and rescue team delivered a shock, Worker said. "After that, his pulse seemed to stabilize, and once he came back to us, we helped assemble the portable stretcher so we could load him up and get him off the mountain," Worker said.
Bob was transported into one of the search and rescue trucks, and it headed to meet the rescue helicopter at a clearing about a half mile away, Worker said.
Heier credited the SABC training that service members receive for helping save Bob's life. "I think Bob's will to live and the SABC concepts of staying calm under pressure (and) knowing how to treat for shock and perform CPR helped," Heier said. "You never know when you might be in a situation where you will need it. Being prepared for these situations can help save someone's life." Heier and Worker were on the mountain for nearly two hours. "There definitely wasn't a shortage of people wanting to help out that day," Heier said. "An EMT was present and a few Army guys were like, 'Can we run down the trail and meet search and rescue half way to help carry their stuff up?' I think that goes back to the military mindset of always being prepared to help out." Heier said he later saw online news from the El Paso county that Bob survived. "I think he's around 58 years old and supposedly a healthy guy who's run triathlons and endurance races in the past," Heier said. "I know he's had issues with his heart before and probably wasn't adjusted to the altitude." Hikers gain 2,000 vertical feet when they reach the top of the Incline. Worker said the experience made him realize that situations like this can happen at any time without notice.
"Now I keep a basic first aid and survival kit in my backpack regardless of the location or duration of the hike," Worker said.
(Editor's Note: The name of the victim has been changed to protect his privacy.)